May 3, 2022

We Will Write the World: Literacy, Community and Creative Collaboration

by: Guest contributor Julia Gutman, ArtistYear

As I walk down the hall with my crate of supplies I see one of my 5th-grade students, her arms crossed. With a combination of disappointment and amusement, she says to me, “Miss, you’re late. C’mon, we got to get working on our special project!” I look down at my watch and I realize I am late, one minute late. I promise her it will never happen again as she ushers me down the hall.

As we get started, students scatter around the room and begin diligently writing and drawing. Some students sit on top of their desks, others spin in rolling chairs that they still can’t believe they were allowed to sit in, and others stand swaying to the music coming from their Chromebooks. The students work on answering questions to create their neighborhood sense maps:

  •  What is something you see in your neighborhood?
  • What is something you smell in your neighborhood?
  • What is something you taste in your neighborhood?
  • What is something you feel in your neighborhood?
  • What is something you hear in your neighborhood?

The students confer with each other, laughing at each other’s similar answers and curious about the ones they answered differently. Many students felt the wind on their faces, heard sirens, smelled fresh bread, tasted a home-cooked meal, and saw their siblings and friends. The special project which these students are brainstorming for is the We Will Write the World project.


A Neighborhood Sense Map made by a 5th grader. Photo by Julia Gutman.

We Will Write the World gives students an opportunity to explore their creativity, reflect on their neighborhoods, and promote the importance of literacy. Groups of students from four different public schools in Philadelphia are creating personal narratives that will be transformed into storybook murals to be displayed in prominent locations in their neighborhoods. In addition to creating beautiful works, the inclusion of text in the murals is meant to promote Reading Promises’ “Read by Fourth Grade” initiative. Reading Promises is a local organization that focuses on increasing child literacy and family engagement so that all students in Philly can read by 4th grade. We Will Write the World is a continuation of a larger billboard project that Reading Promises and Mural Arts Philadelphia collaborated on last year to increase awareness of the reading initiatives. This second part of the project gives creative control to the students — and I can report firsthand that they love it.

Students practicing their drawing skills. Photo by Julia Gutman.

This school year, I have had the privilege of joining this community as an ArtistYear AmeriCorps Fellow. In this role I have had the opportunity to serve ten 3rd to 5th graders at Julia de Burgos Elementary School to create their narratives. De Burgos is a K-8 school located in the Fairhill neighborhood of North Philadelphia. Seven hundred students, 120 teachers and staff, and countless families and friends make up the de Burgos Community. Fairhill is known as the center of the Hispanic community in Philly. The neighborhood and the school proudly display their community’s heritage as you can see Puerto Rican and Dominican flags flying, hear reggaeton playing from cars, and enjoy delicious smells wafting from open restaurant doors.

Located in five regions around the country, ArtistYear is a national service AmeriCorps program that addresses inequalities in arts education in Title I schools. Through extracurricular activities, arts integration, and art intervention, ArtistYear Fellows serve in their partner schools’ communities to bridge the arts education gap. As a visual artist, I have had the opportunity to develop mural projects, host art clubs, and collaborate with many young artists. Teachers and administrators at de Burgos are working to increase the number of extracurricular activities to allow students to socialize and explore new interests. That’s why when approached by Mural Arts for this project we jumped on the opportunity to collaborate.

During our three of six We Will Write the World sessions, we have used video-making, drawing, poetry, and scavenger hunts to learn about elements of creative writing. The sense map was just one activity I used to help students focus their brainstorming. Another was a group video-making activity. Students wrote, directed, and acted in short videos to practice using a beginning, middle, and end in a narrative. One group created a ‘Day in the Life’ style video based on their school day. Another created an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood. One of my personal goals for these sessions was to include different forms of art-making in the brainstorming process, so students did not feel limited to expressing their narrative solely through text. In the next three sessions, I will incorporate poetry and collage activities to help assist the students in expressing their ideas without holding themselves back with fears of sentence structure or spelling.

While the students’ excitement and drive to create something lasting for their neighborhood is contagious, it has also been an emotional process for them. During our sessions, students have shared difficult memories in addition to positive ones. They have fostered a sense of community by creating group expectations and a pick-up system. During our first session, students developed a list of expectations they wanted the group to follow. From being mindful of personal space to not interrupting, the students want kindness and respect as core principles of the classroom. They have worked to create a positive space, where they feel comfortable disagreeing and collaborating with one another. At ArtistYear, we believe that engaging in the arts yields rich social-emotional benefits for students, and it was gratifying to see this come true for my students.

A student holding up our group expectations poster. Photo by Julia Gutman.

Students have also developed a pick-up system to get to our class. My very prompt 5th-grade student is responsible for picking up the 3rd graders. Initially, I would go around to get the rest of the 4th and 5th graders, but inspired by my student helper, the rest of the students began picking each other up from class. Now they all come in groups, running into the room to see who is missing, so they can go get them. The students have created a space of kindness and collaboration, encouraging and comforting one another in a way that will allow for the creation of beautiful stories. Through this project I want my students to witness how restorative and impactful art can be for both themselves and their communities. After our six sessions are over I want my students to continue to create, collaborate, and always feel empowered to call me out.

To learn more about ArtistYear’s program, partners, and funders, visit

Last updated: May 1, 2022

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